Sunday, November 25, 2012

Old Songs

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope and trust you had a good time. What did you do? Who were you with? Who hosted? Did you eat--gasp!--a bird?

You will not answer, of course, because by the time I speak with you next this holiday will be long past and there will be other things to talk about. Anyway, as a scientist, questions, not answers, are your stock in trade.

Anyway, I've been puzzled to note, this year, a definite impulse among some liberal circles towards denying or pointedly not celebrating Thanksgiving. The rationale is that Thanksgiving celebrates the genocide of Native peoples via its association with the Pilgrims. Ordinarily I am on board with this sort of thing--certainly genocide has occurred, is not quite over, and is nothing to celebrate. Columbus Day is justifiably losing its celebratory status for this reason. Except that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the Pilgrims, despite their spurious inclusion in grade school holiday activities. The modern holiday was created by Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to boost morale for obvious reasons, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who moved the holiday up a week in order to encourage more holiday shopping. Pilgrims didn't have anything to do with it. Gratitude and consumption, not proto-American history, are the themes of the day. Our history-themed holidays are the Fourth of July, Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veteran's Day. Thanksgiving Day is not about history, gosh dernit!

Except, that's not quite true. Thanksgiving is about history, it's just that it's about personal, not national history. It's about family, and family is a mess of history. As I told you last year, that is why I go to my mother's place for Thanksgiving, to indulge in good food, good conversation, familiar smells and familiar people. It is the holiday that has changed the least in the thirty-some years of my memory.

For example, when I was nine or ten years old, Thanksgiving Day was cold and rainish, and I was expected to spend the day inside helping with cooking and being social. I like helping with cooking and being social, but in most cases I regard being inside as an irritating interlude between periods of being outside. So I managed to escape for a few minutes and I climbed a tree. While I was sitting up there, a cat walked to the base of the tree, looked at me, and mewed. I'd heard about rabies in the area, and I didn't know what to make of this friendly stray. I stayed in my tree and she went away. But the following summer she approached my family again, and this time we fed her and she moved in. We named her Elora, after the baby in the movie, "Willow," and she lived with us for fifteen years until she died of old age, curled up on the blue reading chair we inherited from my mother's mother. She died on my mother's birthday while I was out of the house, and when I saw Elora's body it was still where she had left it, on the reading chair, but someone had placed one of the roses from my mother's birthday bouquet across the still form.

And those flowers...but way leads on to way and story leads on to story, and if I continue in this vein the end of this letter will find me still in the distant personal past and not in the crisp early winter of today and the titmouse opening a sunflower seed in the young sweetgum or the winter wren eying me from the woodpile.

The reason I brought up that first memory of Elora is that this year, this past week, the better part of thirty years later, Thanksgiving found me doing exactly the same thing; socializing and cooking and wishing I could be outside. And again I escaped, this time to do yard work with my husband. That tree still stands, and Elora's grave is within fifteen feet of it, a coincidence I'm not sure I've mentioned to anyone else. I spent part of the time nearby, coping with a disorganized woodpile, and part of the time further back in our long yard, clipping back invasive multiflora rose while my husband battled the equally aggressive bamboo. The yard does not look like it once did, having succeeded into  a young and tangled forest. My Dad once wrote a poem containing the line "it is here I have come to be older than the trees," and indeed I am older than most of the trees here. They will get older than me, in time. But while the neighborhood has gained trees it has also lost them, and a recent loss particularly caught my eye; the sweetgum in my neighbor's yard, the one I used to climb so often, is gone, cut into segments awaiting decomposition or disposal. I am not really surprised; it has been ill with some sort of systemic fungus for as long as I can remember, it's lower branches gradually dying off, denying me access, the bark of its dark and wrinkled trunk smelling sweet and musty on rainy days. That my neighbor would decide the tree was rotted and had to come down was not surprising.

But that tree was my friend. In its branches I watched the progression of its flowers and fruit. Have you done this? Sweetgum flowers are little pyramids of green balls, like something a child might glue together in summer camp, or like green, fuzzy, grape hyacinths. In time, most of the balls fall out of the pyramid and away from the tree, but one to three, the fertilized ones, stay and grow, their stems lengthening, their fuzz stiffening into dozens of paired spines like gaping mouths, until they become what we called "monkeyballs" when I was a kid. If that epithet had anything to do with the anatomy of a monkey, I never thought of it. I suppose I thought they were what monkeys threw at each other, if I thought of the derivation at all. They were good for throwing, as I recall. And now my friend the monkeyball tree is just another ghost of memory, clear in my mind but nowhere else. I can imagine so many things that are gone, that have not yet come, or that never were.

My Dad once wrote a series of songs with  friend of his. They recorded their songs on cassette tapes, at least four or five of them, and as far as I know, no one but me has ever thought of them since. I thought of one of them this week.

Someone cut down my favorite tree
along with the shadow that used to hang over me.
Noone keeps a secret like a sunny day.

Was this my favorite tree? Not quite, simply one of many I have grown attached to, some of which predeceased it and reminded me of that song also. I don't know which tree my Dad meant, or even if he meant a specific, literal tree. I don't know what shadow he meant, either, and I don't remember the rest of the song, but I like the deep ambiguity of those lines. I can imagine the flat cheeriness of a sunny, summer day, its silence oppressive, the smiling denial of history.

But today the dappled sunlight of my yard neither hides nor reveals any stories. It is simply cold, crisp, illustrated by chirping and the dry scratching of what I think is a nuthatch exploring the layered bark of a young white oak behind me. I hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing today, sun and shadow together find you illuminated and similarly entertained.

-best, C.

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